Reasons to be Cheerful (part 2)

Washington Post

Washington Post

30 years ago today, on March 28, 1979, roughly 25,000 people lived within five miles of the giant cooling towers that became symbols of the nation’s worst commercial nuclear accident.

So quickly have people forgotten. The reactor was so badly damaged that it has never been restarted. It sits there as a silent memorial to the dangers of nuclear power. And now we have many people calling once more for nuclear power plants to be commissioned – your very own ticking time-bomb, in someone else’s backyard.

Some quick facts before we all get too carried away. A typical nuclear plant could cost up to $16 billion. Electricity utilities have applied to build 26 of them. Now I know that $416 billion doesn’t sound like a lot in these TARP days. But, that sort of money would buy a lot of wind, sun, tidal and geothermal power facilities.

Maybe the biggest concern with nuclear power should be its consumption of water. The electric-power industry already accounts for half of all water withdrawals in the U.S. They might soon be joining oil companies who have been buying up water rights here in the West. Gosh knows, they’ll need it since nuclear plants require more water than other form of power plant. Virginia Power, for instance, has water rights to draw one million gallons of water a minute per reactor. Some nuclear plants require twice that. It could be a case of “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink!”

Taking on the workers

I love it when a number of my interests intersect in one post. A superb post over at Education Week captures everything that is wrong when people criticize the unionized nature of this country’s school system. As Diane Ravitch suggests Unions are Not The Problem:

I must confess that I have always been puzzled by people who insist that the unions are the cause of everything that is wrong with education. If we only could get rid of the union, they say, then we could raise performance.

Her arguments seem oriented around three points:

1. If unions were to blame, then school systems that are less unionized, such as in the South, should be doing better. They’re not.

2. It is not that getting rid of poorly performing teachers is difficult. Most of them grow disenchanted and leave within their first few years. There’s not much difference here between heavily unionized schools and less unionized schools.

3. The right to form and join a union is a basic human right.

And it was this last point that got me to thinking about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which currently seems to be every conservatives favorite punching bag (after President Obama).

The crux of the issue with EFCA centers on how easy it is for workers to organize and form a union. The EFCA effectively makes it easier for workers to recruit others, thus making it easier for workers to have the option to join a union where there is currently none. Sounds good to me – unions are by, for, and made up of workers. Surely workers should be able to form unions however they want?

Ignore for a moment that economists think that unions help boost the economy by raising wages. It seems that pro-business organizations are coming out in force against unions, against EFCA, and against raising workers wages. For example, the unapologetically anti-labor Center for Union Facts spent $20 million on ads in 2008 against EFCA. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has vowed to spend another $10 million this year. Just think how many jobs or workplace improvements all that money could have funded!

While these corporate interests claim that signing petitions somehow infringes on workers rights, they never get too agitated at managers who force workers to sit through hours of anti-union videos during work time, who pressure workers not to join unions for fear of losing their jobs, and the labeling of workers as troublemakers if they so much as mention the word ‘union’ on the workplace. Talk about thuggish behavior!

Nope, this has nothing to do with improving our education system, not a whole lot to do with improving our productivity and economy, nor with protecting workers from other workers. It is the same-old class warfare that our history has been littered with – with the bosses wanting to control the every means of production and workers being grateful for any crumbs thrown their way. Anyone would think the workers created the current economic malaise!

I’m here to cooperate with you a hundred percent.

Every few years it seems the Republican-dominated state legislature takes a swipe at the Montana University System. This year is no exception, with Brian Schweitzer joining in the fray. Either the universities get 3% more or tuition will have to go up. Predictably, there are legislators who suggest that universities must learn to live within their means. Before they suggest paying faculty and staff less, perhaps they could focus on some of the other significant costs of a modern university.

Let’s start with the highest paid employee. That would probably be the football coach. Pete Carroll, head football coach at University of Southern California has a total compensation of $4, 415, 714. Perhaps we could encourage the students to compete in their sports on local fields and gymnasiums rather than college-owned facilties? Along with the athletic program, we could suggest the performing arts also utilize community venues rather than university subsidized theatres and centers.

Students could also live off-campus, park off-campus, and eat off-campus. That would free up a lot of the buildings for classrooms, wouldn’t it? Heck, we could stop building new buildings and utilize existing infrastructure. That would probably reduce the debt load of the universities, too.

But, I doubt students would give up their food courts, endless buffets, coffee huts, and marketplaces. They need to have seven selections to choose from for dinner and their locally-grown, organic salads, don’t they? Along with their fast broadband service in the dorms, the wifi system in the library, and the computer help desk.

Universities could also cut back on recruiting students. All those glossy brochures that get sent to high school students starting in year 8 could probably be put on hold, along with the recruiters that travel the region, visiting high schools, and answering endless rounds of questions. The University could stop advertising during NCAA tournaments, touting the excellence of living and playing for four years in western and central Montana. That would save a chunk of change. As would getting rid of the career counseling services and the health care facilities provided on-campus.

And, perhaps the biggest boondoggle of them all would be to get rid of all the expensive faculty. You know, the ones who bring in millions of dollars of research grants and contracts (largely generating their own pay and more than covering the cost of research). They’re the ones who don’t have time to be teaching four or five classes a semester. They need to go, since they are a distraction from the essential function of a modern university, right?

And the most expensive faculty of all? Well, although Janine Basinger of Wesleyan University (a reknowned film professor) makes $250, 000, she’s not the problem. Medical schools are. The highest paid professor in the country is David N. Silvers, professor of dermatology at Columbia University. He gets $4,332,759! And, guess what the legislature is proposing for the Montana University System? A medical program!

Perhaps we should just leave it to the professionals to run our university system? In doing so, we might continue to provide the state, the students, and the local community all of the benefits of the world’s best higher education system.

The Ayn Rand Resurgence

Those of us that are foolish enough to spend more than 5 minutes per day watching cable news channels can’t help but to have noticed that Ayn Rand has become very popular among conservatives again. They particularly point to her novel Atlas Shrugged and suggest that maybe all the great capitalists of the world should start disappearing as they did in Rand’s novel.

Now, I’m a liberal, so I don’t agree with Rand’s philosophy. But based on the TV talk I’ve seen recently, I think I understand Rand much more than they do. (It doesn’t hurt that I just finished reading Atlas Shrugged a mere two months ago.)

One major difference between the situation in Rand’s novel and the situation we find ourselves in today is that the capitalists in Rand’s novel actually produced things: copper, railroads, steel, metal, electricity, etc. The capitalists in the middle of the economic crisis today merely spent the last couple of decades shuffling paper around and literally creating wealth out of thin air. No wonder it has vanished into thin air.

Second, in Rand’s novel, the capitalists are profitable. They are doing well in their industries, and the government is trying to take their money and force them to do the same job with literally no resources. In our current situation, the government is giving the financial institutions money because they cannot remain solvent on their own. In Rand’s novel, the problem is too much government regulation. In our current crisis, the problem has been too little government regulation.

And, of course, we can’t forget that Rand was an atheist. Capitalism was her religion. She saw Christianity and all other forms of religion as useless because she wholeheartedly disagrees with the idea of self-sacrifice for anything or anyone. I’d like to hear a conservative Republican politician, whose very election often relies on the conservative Christian vote, explain how brutal, unregulated capitalism fits in with the Christian notion of “laying down your life for others.”

Pitching in

As in previous depressions, tent cities are springing up in many cities and towns as more people lose their jobs and homes. Where in Missoula will they live? The tell-tale smoke plumes along the Kim Williams trail all winter would tend to indicate some residents in the pines.

Maybe we will soon see Fort Missoula with temporary housing for the homeless, hopefully inside the buildings and not out in the weather. I don’t mean the refurbished buildings used for a range of non-profits, government agencies, and hospice. Rather, there are many old structures that are used for little other than storing equipment, archives, and old vehicles and while they wouldn’t make glamorous housing they would be out of the wind, sun, and rain. All it would take is a bit of forethought by our governing elders. After all, many of those buildings are owned by the Federal government, the State National Guard, the university, and various agricultural research agencies. In dire times wouldn’t the highest and best use be to take care of the most vulnerable, the homeless?

Or they could use some of the Federal Stimulus dollars for projects like the Garden District, a $6.6 million project of affordable homes off Russell Street, on the old Intermountain Lumber site. These rental units are targeted at:

people who earn less than 40 percent, 50 percent and 60 percent of the area median income. The Missoula Housing Authority’s Jim McGrath said a market study showed Missoula needs some 478 units in that range. “There’s a significant number of folks out there that are in that bracket,” McGrath said.

I suspect there are many more than that. Its going to take a concerted local effort to help those people and there’s no time like the present to get going on that project. What about it Mayor Engen, Governor Schweitzer and County Commissioners Carey, Curtiss, and Landquist? Do you want to be pro-active and get serious now about the homeless problem, or will you be reactive as the tent cities get more and more numerous? Will you help?

Market Failure II

Do rural communities deserve a lower standard of health care? According to the Missoulian (1/25/2009), they do. In an article written by David Brown of the Washington Post, the backbone of rural medicine is disappearing. Young surgeons are in great demand and rural hospitals and health clinics can’t afford to pay for them. Its simple economics – the result is that rural communities don’t have access to general surgeons. And that means family practitioners in those communities “can’t deliver babies, emergency rooms can’t take trauma cases, and most internists won’t do complicated procedures such as colonoscopies.”

You can’t blame the surgeons. After they have labored through years of medical school and more years as a resident, they have chalked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. They simply can’t afford to work in a rural community.

You can’t blame the rural hospitals. They don’t have the population to be able to pay the same salary that the big city, billion dollar, non-profit hospitals are able to offer.

You can’t blame the current general surgeons. With the advent of HMO’s we have seen them spending less and less time with more and more patients in order to achieve the ‘efficiencies’ that the insurance companies insist on. There is no reason why they would encourage young medical students to follow in their footsteps and practice the craft of general practice. The non-surgical specialities such as radiology or cardiology pay about the same without the intense workload and scheduling.

Of course, there are some sensible solutions. We could make medical school free. Students would still have to cover their living expenses and pay for books, but tuition and fees could be paid for by the public. Or, we could pay all general surgeons the same amount, regardless of the location of their practice. Or, we could make every hospital that wishes to be considered a non-profit (and therefore doesn’t pay tax on their profits) to provide equal coverage to urban, suburban, and rural areas in a surrounding region. Surgeons could take a rotation across the different campuses of the same hospital.

All of those solutions are perceived to be anti-free enterprise. We would lose the brilliance of the marketplace, in deciding who can afford to go to medical school, where the best surgeons should work, how much they should get paid, and how to more efficiently provide the highest standard of health care to those willing to pay for it.

But, that free market fails the rural community. They don’t deserve equal treatment. Or if they did then they would have to move to the city. Living on the backroads of Montana comes at a cost. Is it your health?